“When the President steps out of the Oval Office, does he really switch the lights off?”

Gauri Shringarpure. (Photo by The Seattle Globalist)
Gauri ,. (Photo by The Seattle Globalist)

“That’s one loud quack!” exclaimed my then 6 year old as we were strolling along the beautiful Sammamish River Trail. Had it not been for his wide-eyed innocence, I could’ve sworn he was referring to the pompous charlatan up the road. Come to think of it, that did sound like a loud quack – or maybe it was a regular one, amplified in an otherwise serene environment.

The loudest sound in the moment was the gurgle of the river to our left; maybe an occasional plop of a pebble dropped in the river, but outside of that, you could hear the proverbial pin drop on the road. The moon stood out against the backdrop of the blue-white sky; the sun stealing the last minutes of its glory before it went down for the day.

The air was crisp, with a light whiff of autumn. For the millionth time since I moved here, I thought about how blessed we Pacific Northwesters are to be living in the midst of such beautiful abundance of nature.

As an immigrant who had spent over half my life in India, this was – very literally – a breath of fresh air.

My First World kids, however, have it easy. The beauty of the Cascades, the Evergreens, even the pristine air is lost on them – not because they don’t consider it beautiful, but because they have little perspective on the absence of these little things that are easy to take for granted.

Fast forward to a few months, and we find ourselves in Bangalore. The so-called Silicon Valley of India, and the hub of some of the brightest technical minds. And right outside the air-conditioned, contemporary glass-walled edifices where these bright minds work, lies a heap of unsightly garbage waiting to be taken care of.

A (very optimistic) poet might have described it as black and gold, but it actually was one revolting mess of wet straw, used tea leaves, egg shells, mango peels, used sanitary napkins, polythene bags and half-eaten food gone rancid. Add to that the noisome reek of open sewers, a party by invitation only for pigs and a host of flies.

The sounds of loud horns blaring from all directions, everyone trying to get their way in; smoggy skies, dust and cigarette smoke inhaled every time you breathe in. If you think that image is ugly, I assure you, it’s way uglier than what you just imagined.

The kids were filled with disgust, and I was happy. Well, not really – it’s an extremely sad thing that things stand like this, but I was glad their comfortable cocoon of what the world looks like had just been pierced to reveal a sneak peek of how people live elsewhere. My younger one was especially shocked:

“Why does it look like this?” he asked, restless. “Will Seattle look like this too, one day?”

“It might, if we don’t take care of it right now,” I answered.

The very thought scared him. “Can we fix it then? But what can I do? I’m not an adult, I can’t change the world!”

“Maybe not the whole world. But surely you can change your world! You know, how many of your toys do you actually play with? Did you know, every small toy made of plastic takes up tons of water, bad chemicals and often little kids working really hard in a faraway country? Do you know that the shampoo we use every day has so many chemicals, that some fish in the ocean fall ill because of it every day? You sure can help, kiddo. You can help by playing with fewer toys.

“That doesn’t mean you don’t get to play –your imagination is such a powerful toy! Tell me, what’s the difference between the dinosaur in your hand and the one in your head? They’re both fun and beautiful! We could walk small distances instead of taking the car! You could have quick showers; you could switch off the lights when you don’t need them!” He was impressed, but more determined.

One day, about a year or so after our trip, he came home from school, stormed through the front door and said to me in a very business-like tone, “Mom, I need to speak to our President. I have to tell him something that’s important.”

“What is it that you have to tell him?”

“It’s about the environment and climate change. He’s the President of the whole United States, and he’s also an adult – maybe he can change the world!”

“Well then, tell him!” I said.

Sure enough, he wrote a very purposeful letter to Mr. President. And what’s more, he heard back from the White House too!

My son was glad President Barack Obama was on his side; that made him even more determined to continue his fight for the environment – this time, along with his little friends – but not before asking, “Mom? When the President steps out of the Oval Office, does he really switch the lights off?”

Stories collected by The Seattle Globalist in partnership with the Equity & Environment Initiative